In a 2017 special issue of Public Garden Magazine (Volume 32), Curator of Living Collections Michael Dosmann considers the future of Plant Collections Network. This flagship program of the American Public Gardens Association partners with the USDA Agricultural Research Service to coordinate germplasm preservation and collections management strategies for North American public gardens. Plant Collections Network grants national accreditation to outstanding institutional collections as part of a collaborative, global commitment to share and conserve plants. The Arnold Arboretum holds six accredited collections, and helped underwrite the publication of this special issue.
An essay about the Plant Collections Network’s future must acknowledge the centrality of global change and other undetermined challenges. To wit, the best defense mitigating change will be collections that are strongly defined and curated, as I articulated in 2012 (editor’s note: Public Garden 27 (Summer/Fall): 28–29) about managing collections in the midst of climate change.
While not purely cause-and-effect, the Network has profoundly impacted gardens by establishing and enhancing a collections ethic. Prior to its establishment, with few exceptions, specific collections within gardens lacked prioritization, and were not recognized as collections of national significance. Oxymoronically, many gardens “focused” on being synoptic. However, that paradigm shifted to one where broad collections are now anchored by specific, Nationally Accredited Plant Collections™, managed with intent and for purpose, and curated at Standards of Excellence™. The Network influenced how gardens value collections, as illustrated throughout this issue. No small feat.
Yet to meet the future, our next steps must be bolder. Obviously, the network must expand: too many gardens are missing from the roster, and too many plants need stewarding. But, a list (of gardens, of taxa, of accessions) is just a list. Beyond re-accreditation, I believe that future success will follow collections development planning, planning that incorporates the latest that science informs and society demands, and planning that meets and links the needs of the Network and individual gardens alike.
In 2015, The Arnold Arboretum launched its Campaign for the Living Collections, a collections development initiative to simultaneously preserve its legacy and secure its long-term future. Some results are immediate, but we intend the impact to resound for decades, if not centuries, to come. The Campaign was born after several years of deep thinking and thoughtful planning around the intrinsic value of collections, and how to improve them to best serve future generations’ use. Our current Network collections played a central role in the plan’s development. We asked how to improve these six exemplars. For instance, what additional provenances of Carya ovata are of most importance for us to add to maximize that species’ diversity? And, we wondered how to improve other robust collections before their integration into the Network. While we may have the most diverse, wild-sourced Ginkgo collection in North America, what other cultigens or landraces are we missing that are of top priority? The plan now delivered, we are in the midst of enacting it. This has been a boon to us, and I cannot help but wonder what would happen if something similar was multiplied across all gardens, addressing their individual needs as well as those of the broader Network.
Beyond planning, we must further attend to collections documentation. I like the iceberg analogy, where the value and power of a collection (or network of them) lie not with above-the-surface plants but with the associated below-the-surface documentation. The surefire way to document collections is to use them and prepare them for future use. Curation should not be a passive venture, and it is through active collections engagement that new knowledge is generated, species are safeguarded from extinction, and the public becomes less plant blind. Otherwise, why do we profess to have collections?
Use also means sharing. We must willingly distribute germplasm to gardens filling gaps, and never say no to scholars who need material. In fact, we should aggressively get our material into the hands of those who require it. These Nationally Accredited Plant Collections™ and what they embody must also be shared to our garden members, our visitors, and the public at large. They must always leave our gates knowing that their beautiful public garden possesses plants of global importance, and is in need of further support.
The future of the Plant Collections Network will be as bright as we will it to be. Bold development planning coupled to active documentation, broader use, and generous sharing is guaranteed to deliver a bright future that benefits the Network and gardens alike.
Reprinted with permission of the American Public Gardens Association. ©2017. Read the entire special issue of The Public Garden here.